This article presents information regarding the therapeutic benefits of animal meats. In addition to basic information about animal foods, we will cover why wild, and free-range animal products have greater health and environmental benefits than grain-fed animal foods. We'll also discuss why lower levels of fiber may be helpful(!), and when more fat and fewer carbs improves health. We'll present what is understood about ancestors from the archaeological record who ate a meat-based diet vs. a grain-based diet.
Benefits of Protein and Fat and How to Digest Them Well
One of the beneficial qualities of animal meats, including fish, seafood, poultry and red meats, is the high protein content. The linguistic origins of the word protein is from the Greek proteios, meaning “first place” or “primary”. Indeed, protein is a basic building block for many vital substances within the body. It is required for hormone production, for example. That means protein is critical for healthy moods and sexuality. A balanced response to stress relies on hormones and neurotransmitters that are constructed with protein. Protein also helps build the immune system, the bones and muscles, and the cardiovascular system.
Adequate protein is reflected in healthy hair, skin and nails. Protein is a back-up fuel when carbs and fats are lacking. Proteins help carry oxygen in our blood cells. Protein makes up our chromosomes that carry our genetic material to pass down to our children. Protein is needed to repair the body. Protein is a part of the enzymes that are needed for digestion, elimination, and various chemical reactions. As you can see, getting adequate protein is important to health.
Most women need to digest a bare minimum of 60g of protein daily, often more if they are more active or under stress. Men will often need even more. A protein calculator can be found online and can help with individualizing your daily protein requirements. Here is a link to one I like. The individual level of protein needed can be fine-tuned with nutritional laboratory tests and a knowledge of functional medicine ranges.
Animal proteins have a more complete amino-acid profile than plant protein so it's easier to get protein needs met with animal foods in most cases. Animal flesh includes the nine essential amino acids needed to fulfill protein requirements. While plant proteins like rice and beans may be combined to total the nine amino acids needed, the plant proteins have various trade-offs that often aggravate someone with health issues.
The trade-offs of plant proteins include: The grains and legumes are carbohydrate-rich leading to greater insulin production which leads to more inflammation. Grains and legumes are typically high in lectins which are plant-made toxins that can cause aggravation in the digestive system and bloodstream. The plant-based foods are often high in phytic acid which can leach valuable minerals like calcium and magnesium from the body thereby weakening bones and teeth. For these reasons, I often encourage individuals to eat more animal protein vs plant sources of protein.
The therapeutic benefits of animal protein include:
1) Help level out blood sugar issues thereby reducing fatigue and cravings.
2) Can replace carbohydrate-rich foods in meals thereby reducing inflammation stemming from excess insulin production and excess triglycerides and oxidized-LDL cholesterol in response to the carbohydrates.
3) Help provide raw materials for hormones therefore supporting thyroid, adrenals, sexual health and hormone balance.
4) Support a strong immune system to fight infections.
5) Help reduce brain fog.
In order to get the benefits from eating fish, poultry or meat, one must digest it. Some people complain that meat feels like a brick in their stomach or they experience constipation or bloating. This is a typical sign of low stomach acid production as is heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD. Even if a person does not digest protein well, their body still needs it and likely needs it more than ever in order to get healthy! It is important to assess the need for stomach acid support which may be done quantitatively with laboratory testing. Protein requires adequate stomach acid to activate the enzymes needed for digestion. There are many remedies that help stimulate stomach acid including more raw sea salt, apple cider vinegar (add 1 Tbls to 6-8 oz of water) and Betaine HCl. I suggest a couple of different types of Betaine HCl when working with clients. If you are taking prescription medications, you should check to make sure they are not contraindicated as some medications thin the stomach lining. My favorite Betaine HCL supplement is Ortho Molecular's Betaine and Pepsin. I also like Empirical Labs Betaine HCl (though it does contain a slight amount of rice for those of you that eat grain-free). Taking 1-2 capsules with a meal typically helps with protein digestion.
Carbohydrates tend to suppress stomach acid production for some individuals so practicing proper food combining or following a ketogenic diet (low carb) or carnivore diet (zero carb) are some options for helping with digestion of protein also.
Stomach acid production is important not only for protein digestion but for minerals also. Animal products are particularly high in many minerals including iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous, and selenium. Individuals with suboptimal levels of these minerals often need stomach acid support and find that eating animal products can be therapeutic.
Another therapeutic quality of animal foods is the iron content. Foods contain two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Both are present in animal foods but plant foods only contain the non-heme type that is more difficult to absorb on average. Therefore, when working to optimize one's iron levels, it is often more therapeutic to prioritize animal sources of iron over plant-based sources. I often suggest red meat daily for someone with suboptimal iron levels. Low iron levels often also signify low digestive secretions and leaky gut so these areas should be evaluated as well.
The other major nutritional component of meats is the fat. Obviously, natural meats range in their fat content. Poultry tends to have the least amount of fat and greater levels of Omega-6. Some fish like sardines and salmon and red meat cuts can be much higher in fat than poultry and also superior due to their high Omega-3 fatty acid content. Fat, especially animal fat, is critical to health not only as a fuel but due to the vitamins it contains. The fat-soluble vitamins in animal foods include: A, D, E, and K2. Some people cannot convert the vegetable source provitamin A to Vitamin A and need a supplement or more animal foods (like liver) to get adequate A.
Fats are critical for nervous system health including the brain. The brain prefers to run on ketones (which come from burning fat) versus carbohydrates as a fuel. Fat helps to repair and heal the tissues in the body. Fat as a fuel also produces less free radicals and is a "cleaner" fuel for the body than carbs (link to article to read more about fat vs. carbs as fuel). Fats are critical for hormone health, stress response and fertility because the hormones required are made from combining a protein with cholesterol which is supported by fat in the diet.
Some people report problems digesting fat or say they don't feel well on a fat-based diet. Much of this trouble can be resolved with proper support for the liver-and gall bladder. Supplements and herbs that help with fat digestion include phosphatidyl choline, ox bile, beet root powder and bitter herbs like burdock and dandelion root.
Pastured and Free-range vs Conventional
Free-range and pastured animals will provide more dense nutrition in terms of fat-soluble vitamins. For example, a teaspoon of conventionally-raised pig lard might offer a mere 13IU of Vitamin D whereas reports of lard from pastured pigs range up to 500IU per teaspoon!
The same is true for other nutrients in the fat from free-range animals including beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Animals that are pastured or grass-fed tend to be higher in Omega-3 content and lower in Omega-6. This is because animals that eat grass and other wild organisms are typically higher in Omega-3 fatty acids naturally. Animals fed a grain-based Omega-6 heavy diet will end up with higher levels of Omega-6 in their flesh. Choosing animal foods with a higher Omega-3 level is generally better for Americans who tend to get too much Omega-6 vs Omega-3. An ideal ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 is about 4:1. Choosing pastured and grassfed animal foods and especially wild seafood helps balance this ratio by increasing the Omega-3s. Individual Omega 6:3 ratios may be measured with lab work. Those individuals with higher Omega 6 levels tend to have more issues with lab high cholesterol levels.
A common sign of Omega-6 dominance (as in, your Omega-6:3 ratio is too high) are hives or other signs of high histamine levels (chronic allergies and rashes, for example). Another common sign is dependence on ibuprofen, aspirin or acetaminophen for relief from symptoms. These over the counter pain relievers work on reducing pain along the Omega-6 pathway and are a typical signs that more Omega-3s are needed and there are too many Omega-6 fatty acid based foods in the diet. Omega-6s are provided by vegetable oils and grains (canola, soy, sesame, safflower, sunflower, corn, avocados, etc. and their oils). Omega-3s are provided by free-range animals that eat natural foods, instead of grains, and seafood and fish. When you're shopping, look for pastured pork, for example. Look for eggs and chickens that are soy-free as some studies indicate typical chicken may have an Omega6:3 ratio of 13:1 compared to soy-free chickens which had an ideal ratio of 4:1 (1). Beef should be 100% grassfed as well. It tends to be higher in Omega-3 (from eating grasses) as well as some key amino-acids like L-Tryptophan.
Animal meats have other benefits over plant-based foods in some cases. Plants contain lectins which are toxins the plant uses to defend itself in nature. For people with aggravated or stressed immune systems and leaky gut, the high-lectin plant foods can continue to aggravate the problem. This has led many people to follow special low-lectin diets promoted by authors like Steven Gundry where they avoid those plants highest in lectins. Many have found success on a carnivore diet where they eat meat and fat only from animals to the exclusion of plant-foods. For many, this approach can be very helpful and sustainable (see Dr. Marcus Ettinger's Carnivore Diet Resource Page for more information about the carnivore diet).
Unfortunately, many Americans still minimize animal foods for fear that they will contribute to the risk of heart disease. For many, this is not helpful for health. It appears that substituting vegetable oils for saturated fats potentially may increase the risk of death (2) and that carbohydrates (yes, even the whole grains and especially gluten) contribute a greater risk to developing chronic disease than animal foods (3). This seems in part because carbohydrates contribute to high triglyceride levels, small dense LDL cholesterol, and advanced glycation end products (or AGEs) which are believed to contribute to disease.
Couch potato test
When we eat carbohydrates, the liver often makes triglycerides to store them. Have you ever eaten a big carbohydrate meal (like a plate of pancakes) and needed to lie down on the couch afterward? That is what it typically feels like to make triglycerides. It takes a lot of energy and the body is taking the carbohydrates you just ate and storing them as fat. Some people experience this sleepiness issue after meals simply from eating a salad. This is often a sign of blood sugar difficulties and can be remedied through a change in diet and supplementation.
A low amount of fat in the diet will typically relate to lower HDL numbers which further puts a person at higher risk for heart disease. One of the best studies we have available to date indicates that the highest risk for coronary disease comes from a high triglyceride: low HDL ratio (4). Once we recognize these new understandings, it appears that reducing carbohydrates and increasing healthy saturated and unsaturated fats (rather than the other way around) help us to be healthier. Indeed this is what I and many other health professionals (5) see in consulting practice.
Furthermore, there are many new studies, including meta-analyses, that demonstrate that high fat, low-carbohydrate diets are more effective in reversing obesity, diabetes, and dementia than the low-fat standard diets do (6). It's time to take another look at grass-fed and free-range or wild meats and their fats and consider the health benefits.
What about the lack of fiber?
Some critics of animal foods in the diet may claim that their lack of fiber contributes to health issues. However, it appears that conventional wisdom around fiber may be another item that we didn't know as much about as we thought we did. Many people suffering from constipation for example, are concerned that meat does not contain enough fiber. However, to date, there has not been a peer-reviewed randomized and controlled study demonstrating that fiber benefits those with constipation (7). The only quality study that looked at fiber and constipation showed that those who reduced dietary fiber saw a reduction in their constipation. Those who eliminated fiber completely from the diet saw an elimination of negative digestive symptoms (8).
What do records of ancient people tell us about their diets and health
Evaluating the evidence of what paleo-lithic or ancient peoples ate and their health status can help us with understanding optimal food choices. Experts claim that our genetics and the related physiology we have today were developed throughout the past. Dr. Mike Eades, retired MD and health blogger, states that 99.6% of all generations of Homo species had no experience with modern foods. Therefore, if we want to understand what foods may work best for us, it is helpful to study ancient peoples and what they ate.
We will never know 100% what ancestors ate, however, scientists have found evidence comparing meat-eating hunter-gatherers to farmers whose diet relied on grain. When comparing these differing groups of ancient peoples they found that the meat-eaters had much healthier teeth and bones reflecting superior nutritional status. For more information on this, I recommend watching Dr. Mike Eades video 'Paleopathology and the Origins of the Paleo Diet' (9). He discusses that the so-called "healthy" diet of Egyptians which relied heavily on wheat, vegetables, fruits, with sparse amounts of red meats likely contributed to very high rates of heart disease detected from soft tissue samples of ancient Egyptians.
Weston A. Price was another resource for information about ancient diets. He presented information resulting from his international survey of aboriginal peoples eating traditional diets. He recorded the healthiest populations based on teeth and jaw health and concluded that the most robust individuals relied heavily on animal foods in their traditional diet (10).
Ethical and Environmental Considerations
Although there are many nutritional benefits to eating animal foods, critics argue that a vegetarian diet is healthier for the environment and more ethical to animals. Author Lierre Keith takes this on in her book "The Vegetarian Myth" where she argues that a heavy reliance on plant-based foods like grains and legumes produced in an agricultural setting equates to biologic cleansing and habitat destruction. The loss of wild habitat, soil, and diversity caused by farming alone is important to consider when making an ethical choice about diet. Of course, factory farming of animals is a horrendous practice and should be stopped. However, free-range grazing of animals can be done in an ethical manner where animals have healthy living conditions. Furthermore, regenerative agriculture is demonstrating that grazing animals can restore biological diversity in the soil and native habitats. Grazing of animals in natural habitats like prairie can help with slowing or even reversing global warming through the carbon sequestration that occurs through grazing. Keith encourages us to consider that we can make better environmental and ethical food choices through supporting sustainable agriculture that includes animal husbandry.
In summary, animal meats contain beneficial nutrients including protein and fat, multiple vitamins and minerals. There are many reasons why an animal-based food may be a therapeutic food choice. Choosing animals that are free-range, wild or pastured and soy-free is critical to getting optimal nutrition. This is also critical from an environmental and ethical perspective. There is compelling evidence that the healthiest ancestors ate meat-based diets compared and that grain-eating ancestral populations experienced greater nutritional stress.
3. Davis, William. 2011. Wheat Belly. Rodale Books.
4. Luz et al. 2008. High ratio of triglycerides to HDL-cholesterol predicts extensive coronary disease. Clinical Science 64:427-432.
5. Colbert, Don. 2017. Keto Zone: Burn fat, balance hormones and lose weight. Worthy Books.
10. Price, Weston. 2008. Nutrition and Physical Degradation 8th Edition. Price-Poddinger Nutrition Foundation